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Around the Kitchen Table

By Donald Ward

Don Ward

Colleen is away for a couple of weeks, visiting her sisters on the West Coast. To say that I miss her is an understatement. Ever since her aneurysm, I have been conscious that each minute with her is a gift, and to have that gift taken away, even for two weeks, is quite a shock to my system.

Colleen has aphasia as a result of the damage to her brain caused by the stroke. What this means, simply, is that she has difficulty reading, writing and communicating verbally, but there is nothing wrong with her comprehension. She can follow a complicated and subtle argument with little difficulty, but it is when she tries to take part in the conversation that troubles arise. Consequently, I spend a lot of my time trying to interpret what she is saying.

Oddly enough, it is that that I miss the most. There is an intimacy in mutual misunderstandings that normal people can’t appreciate. A couple dealing with aphasia tend to develop their own vocabulary, as if they were speaking in a kind of code. When Colleen wants her “house” I know she is really looking for her purse. When she says “Sharron” I know she is talking about our daughter Brigid. It’s not that the words aren’t there — she is perfectly capable of saying purse and Brigid — it’s that they don’t come out in the right order or at the right time.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, who wrote a book entitled My Stroke of Insight, said that for the longest time after her stroke nothing could convince her that those little markings on a page were actually decipherable symbols that could be translated into words and sentences. Writing and reading were a total mystery to her. Colleen has got to the point that she can read a menu in a restaurant, but the printed word remains largely a mystery. And I’m the one who has to order for her, otherwise she confuses the server with hand gestures and verbal perplexities.

Hand gestures are another code we are working out. Colleen is quite eloquent with her arms and hands, but what she means when she uses them is anyone’s guess. It must be very frustrating to have clear in your mind a thing you want to say or do and be unable to communicate it to someone else. Colleen lives with that frustration every day, yet she is the most even-tempered and patient person I know.

“God needed to teach me to slow down,” she jokes about the event that nearly took her life.

Sometime she is as articulate as you or I, and can carry on a conversation with little hint that she is impaired in any way. One thing I have discovered since Colleen’s illness is that most people speak in incomplete sentences and leave thoughts half-expressed anyway, so in some cases Colleen fits right in. In other cases, people are usually patient enough to figure out what she means, and some people have even claimed to have a psychic connection with her because they can figure out what she is saying without her actually having said it. Whether they are right or not is another matter.

But there is definitely a connection between mother and daughter: I have seen it at work, and am amazed by it.

Since I have been her chief caregiver, we have naturally been spending more time with one another than most married couples do, and that’s another reason I miss her. I take her out every day, which gives us an hour or two to work on our communication skills uninterrupted — I find that I am learning as much as she is — and to give each other the time we need to be together as a couple.

“I love you every day,” she tells me, or, “I love you all the time.”

“I will love you till the day I die,” I respond, and she’s got that figured out, too. She tells me that I’m going to die when I’m 100 and she’s going to die when she’s 99, so that we can go together. It’s a comforting thought, and who knows? Having nearly died once, she might have an inside track on these things.